What are Coroners and What do They Do?

A Coroner at a Crime Scene
A Coroner at a Crime Scene

Have you wondered what a coroner does and how that job might differ from a medical examiner? The office of the coroner, or “crowner,” dates back to medieval times when the crowner was responsible for making sure that death duties were paid to the King.

Today, the coroner’s main duty is to inquire into deaths and complete death certificates. In all cases, coroners/crowners investigate unusual deaths.The position of coroner predates that of the medical examiner, but the latter position replaced the coroner in many instances during the late nineteenth century in the states. The medical examiner, unlike the inexperienced coroner at that time, was and is a physician or a person with medical education and experience. Coroners relied on hiring physicians pathologists or forensic pathologists to perform autopsies when deaths were suspected as foul play.

While some states still use the elected coroner system (and many coroners today are physicians), those same states and other non-coroner states may also use medical examiners. In England, where the coroner’s occupation originated, coroners are doctors or lawyers who are responsible for investigating deaths and who also can arrange for post-morten examinations of the body.

Indiana maintains a site specifically for¬†that state’s county¬†coroners, where they state that, “Because Indiana coroners come from such varied backgrounds and have such varied professional preparation and education, we have assumed that very few people know absolutely everything necessary to perform the duties of the Coroner.” Their guidebook illustrates the tasks that any non-specialist can follow to work as a county coroner in that state.

Genealogists often research coroners’ records to learn more about their ancestors’ deaths. These records may have contained information about the deceased and how that person died, but those records also could contain information about the deceased’s personal belongings, especially those that were found on the body. Coroner and medical examiner files usually are open to the public, but some courthouses or medical offices may ask for legitimate reasons to examine certain records. Many older reports have been microfilmed and are available through the Family History Library of through its many branches.

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